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Alexandria/Arlington Extra

In Alexandria and Arlington, Food for Every Palate

Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page VA42

Crystal City has emerged from its underground cocoon as the downtown restaurant area for Arlington and Alexandria.

Such big-name chains as McCormick & Schmick's, Legal Sea Foods, Morton's, Ruth's Chris Steak House and Ted's Montana Grill as well as local favorites Jaleo and Oyamel fill the area centered on Crystal Drive from 18th to 23rd streets.

Crab ravioli with asparagus, left, and surf and turf featuring tempura lobster tail and filet mignon are favorites at Potowmack Landing in Alexandria. (Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)

Alexandria's Old Town and Del Ray areas and Clarendon and Shirlington in Arlington still shine with such homegrown luminaries as the Majestic Cafe, Taqueria Poblano, the Carlyle and the iconoclastic Ray's the Steaks.

About a quarter of the population in the Arlington and Alexandria area is Asian or Hispanic, and the smaller eateries reflect those demographics. Many of the older storefront ethnic restaurants in both jurisdictions have vanished over the past few years as massive developments swallowed up large chunks of land.

Here are some suggestions for restaurants in various areas of Arlington and Alexandria.

DINERS: Nothing says home like an old-fashioned diner. Bob & Edith's Diner (2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-920-6103; 4707 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-920-4700) fits that bill, serving breakfast 24 hours a day. It also makes a mean milkshake.

Table Talk Restaurant in Alexandria (1623 Duke St., 703-548-3989) is open only for breakfast and lunch, but regulars and others crowd in for daily specials, such as corned beef and cabbage and fresh-roasted meats for sandwiches.

The Four Seasons Diner (557 S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria, 703-823-9767) is more like an upscale New Jersey diner, with a menu that runs several pages. It closes at midnight weekdays and 1 a.m. weekends.

Several glammed-up diners have become local favorites. The Metro 29 Diner (4711 Lee Hwy., Arlington, 703-528-2464), the Silver Diner (3200 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-812-8600, www.silverdiner.com) and the National Diner (2650 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Arlington, 703-842-1240, www.hinationalairport.com) have lengthy menus that go way beyond blue plate specials and burgers and fries.

STEAK: The big-name prime meat steakhouses are represented by Morton's (1631 Crystal Square Arcade, Arlington, 703-418-1444, www.mortons.com) and Ruth's Chris Steak House (2231 Crystal Dr., 11th floor, Arlington, 703-979-7275, www.ruthschris.com).

A local favorite is Ray's the Steaks (1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-841-7297). The meat is top-rate, aged and cut on the premises of this storefront restaurant, which has all the ambience of a stagecoach stop. The spartan decor -- wine crates are the only decorations -- uncomfortable wood chairs pulled up to plain butcher block tables and terrazzo floor don't encourage lingering. The servers are welcoming, the wine list is ample and the prices are significantly lower than in well-known chains. In other words, it's always packed.

PIZZA: That pink and aqua building along Duke Street isn't a mirage, it's Generous George's Positive Pizza & Pasta Place (3006 Duke St., Alexandria, 703-370-4303, www.generousgeorge.com), which has some of the city's best pizza. Inside it's a carnival, with bicycles and mechanical cars hanging from the ceiling. It's more sedate, but no less busy, at Fairlington Pizza (1715 Centre Plaza, Alexandria, 703-998-6711) where the crust is yeasty-chewy and the toppings are generous. Try some of the Greek specialties, too, especially the souvlaki and spinach pie.

Some locals prefer Valentino'sNew York Style Pizzeria (4813 Beauregard St., Alexandria, 703-354-8383). The lines are out the door at the Italian Store (3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington, 703-528-6266), not only for the pizza but also for the subs. There are only a couple of sidewalk tables, and they seemed to be filled whatever the weather. Don't forget to pick up some of the prepared foods in the refrigerated cases and some wine.

ASIAN: Clarendon's image as a little Vietnam is rapidly being wiped out by redevelopment. But Thai restaurants have more than filled the void. For Vietnamese, there is still Minh's (2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-525-2828), a gem tucked into the first floor of a nondescript office building. The menu at this very stylish rendition of a mom-and-pop restaurant includes more than 100 dishes.

Among the area's Thai restaurants, Crystal Thai (4819 First St. N., Arlington, 703-522-1311, www.crystalthai.com) has an almost otherworldly feel, with dark wood and silk from another era. The menu is extensive. T.H.A.I. in Shirlington (4029 S. 28th St., Arlington, 703-931-3203) is a handsome space with outside seating and an excellent selection of lunchtime bowl specials.

A newcomer, Bangkok 54 Restaurant & Bar (2919 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-521-4070, www.bangkok54restaurant.com), and an old standby, Thai SquareRestaurant (3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-685-7040, www.thaisquarerestaurant.com), are good choices for Thai food that is authentic, which in many cases means fiery. Bangkok 54 is sleek and inviting and has livened up what had become a worn block of Columbia Pike. Thai Square, just a few blocks away, isn't much to look at, but the food is superb.

Matuba (2915 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-521-2811) is just a sliver of a space with a bland decor, but it has been serving excellent sushi and sashimi for nearly three decades. The fish is pristine fresh, there is a small selection of grilled items, and I drive across town for the fried dumplings. Another good choice for sushi is the small and elegant Bonsai Restaurant (4040 S. 28th St., Arlington, 703-824-8828).

LATIN AND MEXICAN:Taqueria Poblano (2400-B Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-548-8226, www.taqueriapoblano.com), one of Del Ray's most popular attractions, now has a bigger sibling (2503-A N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-237-8250). They emulate taco stands in Mexico and Southern California, and the trademark items are the best that street food can offer. The menu is limited, but every dish is a jewel. Try the duck carnitas tacos and the steak tacos al carbon.

Guajillo (1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-807-0840) occupies the space just next to Ray's the Steaks in a tiny shopping strip in Clarendon. Guajillo is like a slice of Mexico, and the food is, too.

Oyamel (2250-B Crystal Dr., Arlington, 703-413 2288, www.oyamel.com) is chef Jose Andres's spectacular-looking Mexican restaurant in Crystal City. The high ceiling is accented with a mammoth swarm of monarch butterflies, the pottery is magnificent and the total effect is stunning. It's a great place to go for a drink and a snack, but great food is often elusive. The barbecue tacos are wonderful, but the carnitas tacos are just too-crisp morsels of fatty meat. And the Caesar salad has a better bite than most of the ceviches.

El Pollo Rico (932 N. Kenmore St., Arlington, 703-522-3220) is a good place to experience some of the best slow-roasted Peruvian chicken. Save room for the thick tortillas and savory empanadas. The charbroiled chicken is the main event at Crisp & Juicy (4540 Lee Hwy., Arlington, 703-243-4222), but don't overlook the steaks and sandwiches.

BARBECUE: Red, Hot & Blue (1600 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-276-7427, www.redhotandblue.com) has become a Washington institution since it first opened. The pulled pork, especially, shows a definite Memphis flair. The large and succulent chunks, caramelized to perfection, are great, even without sauce. The high-tech restaurant doesn't have any piles of wood by the door; the hickory is all in the mouth. Stay away from the hot sauce unless you want the great taste to be obliterated by the fire. The sauce is nearly a paste of red pepper.

I'm not nearly as impressed with the ribs, which can be ordered sweet, dry (coated with a dry rub) or wet (mopped with sauce). The ribs are fatty and overcooked, and the dry rub doesn't do much to compensate. The coleslaw is bland. But the potato salad is terrific.

BRUNCH: It's always a good time to visit the convivial Carlyle (4000 S. 28th St., Arlington, 703-931-0777, www.greatamericanrestaurants.com), but brunch is special. The menu is a la carte and includes special versions of eggs Benedict and French toast. It also has comfort food such as meatloaf and homemade potato chips.

Harry's Tap Room (2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 703-778-7788, www.harrystaproom.com) offers omelets and a half-dozen variations on eggs Benedict, along with a see-and-be-seen crowd in a stunning space. There's a great wine list, including several dozen by the glass.

CHILD FRIENDLY:Five Guys (4626 King St., Alexandria, 703-671-1606, www.fiveguys.com) is a hole in the wall where few complain about lining up to get what some consider the best burgers around. There are no special gimmicks to hold youngsters' interest, just great burgers. Teach them early not to accept the drive-through version as authentic.

There are several Five Guys in the Washington area, including one in Old Town Alexandria (107 N. Fayette St., 703-549-7991).

There are no gimmicks at Chadwick's (203 S. Strand St., Alexandria, 703-836-4442) either, just a vast menu and good burgers. It's noisy enough that an unhappy youngster won't spoil the meal for everyone else, but the boisterous atmosphere is contagious.

LOCAL FAVORITES:Royal Restaurant (734 N. Saint Asaph St., Alexandria, 703-548-1616) celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and it's still going strong. A typical city cafe, Royal draws a large breakfast and lunch crowd from nearby offices and a dinner business from the neighborhood. Hams and turkeys are always home cooked, and there are Greek and Italian specialties at dinner.

Whitlow's on Wilson (2854 Wilson Blvd., Clarendon, 703-276-9693, www.whitlows.com) offers good basic fare and a good Sunday brunch. The menu at the Boulevard Woodgrill (2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-875-9663, www.boulevardwoodgrill.com) focuses on dishes that are cooked over a wood-fired grill, along with salads and sandwiches.

The Majestic Cafe (911 King St., Alexandria, 703-837-9117, www.majesticcafe.com) is another reincarnation, this one of a long-closed blue plate diner. The space might be art deco, but the cooking is refined soul food.

Just down the street, Hard Times Cafe (1404 King St., Alexandria, 703-837-0050, www.hardtimes.com) has grown into a national chain. But it's still got the chili that draws them in and keeps them coming back. Sounding a more elegant note is Le Refuge (127 N. Washington St., Alexandria, 703-548-4661, lerefugealexandria.com), which for more than two decades has been serving country French cuisine to a dedicated following.

A new favorite is Tallula (2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-778-5051, www.tallularestaurant.com), with an ambitious menu and an extensive wine collection that includes about 65 selections by the glass. It's in the space that for years was occupied by Whitey's and is a collaboration by the owners of Evening Star Cafe (2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-549-5051, www.eveningstarcafe.net) and VermillionRestaurant (1120 King St., Alexandria, 703-684-9669) and the owner of the Clarendon Grill (1101 N. Highland St., Arlington, 703-524-7455, www.cgrill.com).

ONLY IN ALEXANDRIA: On a hot summer afternoon or a bleak winter day, there is no place like the Potowmack Landing Restaurant at the Washington Sailing Marina (1 Marina Dr., Alexandria, 703-548-0001, www.potowmacklanding.com). The elegant sailboats play in the water, and there's always a cool breeze off the Potomac. The food rarely rises to exciting, but it's sturdy and dependable. It also offers a Sunday brunch buffet. And watching July 4 fireworks from there is spectacular.

A PLACE TO CELEBRATE: A great spot for a celebration is Jose Andres's other Crystal City restaurant, Jaleo (2250-A Crystal Dr., Arlington, 703-413-8181, www.jaleo.com). A more elegant and sophisticated sibling of the downtown Washington original, the Crystal City location is a place for great tapas, some even better than in Seville and Barcelona. It's hard to choose a favorite -- perhaps the sweetbreads, the ham croquettes, but then there are the marinated anchovies and the chorizo on mashed potatoes. Enjoy!

A ROMANTIC EVENING: Few places are more romantic than Alexandria's La Bergerie (218 N. Lee St., 703-683-1007, www.labergerie.com). Waiters provide elegant tableside service, whether it's preparing an excellent Caesar salad or boning a Dover sole.

The food is classic without being stodgy: oysters, sweetbreads, foie gras, duck, lamb and vegetarian options.

Dinner isn't complete without a towering soufflé for dessert. All that -- along with the upholstered booths, the crystal chandeliers and the attentive service -- make this a perfect place for romance, or just a special treat during a very bad week.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company